– Debayudh Chatterjee
Introduction: Ginsberg and his Religion
In an interview given to Suranjan Ganguly in 1994, Allen Ginsberg talked about his reason for coming to India and elaborated on the experience. By then he had already been to Europe and spent several years there. But India drew him because of her ‘most rich and exquisite and aesthetically attractive culture.’ He assumed that India would provide answers to all his spiritual enquiries. As many are aware, his poetry and life prior to his visit were mostly concerned with homosexuality, social oppression and consumption of drugs. Ginsberg, born and brought up in a Jewish household had shown interest in spirituality from a tender age. He claimed to have had a vision in 1948, in which he heard the voice of William Blake, one of his role models, and mistook it for the voice of God. As early as in May 14, 1953, he wrote to Neil Cassady about a ‘new kick’ he had taken two weeks ago and how he had accidentally stumbled across a series of volumes on Chinese painting that evoked his interest in Asian religions. The 1950s had already witnessed signs of the American Dream crumbling down in the prelude to the Cold War and McCarthy’s witch-hunt had already seen its worst. Various artists and writers had their independent voices curbed by State autocracy. Thus, his seminal work ‘Howl,’ published in 1956, deals with the acute spiritual crisis of his time. He was living in an age devoid of vision and markedly affected by consumerism. Another poem written in 1956, ‘America,’ which appears in the same collection as ‘Howl,’ blatantly exposes the political, social and spiritual turmoil he was going through. Although throughout his literary career he harboured a strong anti-capitalist sentiment, the socialist ideals and communist ideologies that inspired him in his youth soon managed to disillusion him. He concluded by writing that, ‘Communism is a 9 letter word/ used by inferior magicians with the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold.’ Such resentment compelled Ginsberg to shift his attention to spirituality even more. In the same interview he admits that his main reason behind going to India was to find a spiritual teacher. By 1962, he had already read the Bhagavad Gita and Sri Ramakrishna’s Table Talk, along with various other Buddhist writings, including the Tibetan Book of Dead. He was interested in many a stream of faith he came across in India. From spending innumerable nights with Bohemian post-independent Bengali poet-groups to visiting Hindu burning-ghats and watching dead bodies being cremated, his diverse experiences also included prolonged interactions with sadhus, yogis and divine practitioners of various cults. Thus Ginsberg’s tenure in India offered him a first-hand experience of delving deep into Asian religions that would continue to influence him throughout his life.
On talking about this Indian influence, Ginsberg says, ‘The Indian influence was first of all on the voice itself and on the notion of poetry and music coming together. India helped me to rediscover that relationship between poetry and song. I heard people singing in the streets, chanting mantras, so I began singing mantra too- “Hare Krishna Hare Rama” or “Hare Om Namah Sivaye.” ‘It was at the Magh Mela (Kumbha Mela) at Allahabad,’ he continues, ‘that I heard a Nepalese lady singing “Hare Krishna Hare Rama” and the melody was so beautiful that it struck in my head and I took it home to America in 1962 and began singing it at poetry parties, after poetry readings with finger cymbals first and later the harmonium.’
His biographers reveal that he had a great variety of mantras, both Buddhist and Hindu, to sing in public gatherings. In 1966, He met Shrila Prabhupada during the latter’s trip to America, which intensified his interest in the Hare Krishna movement. My paper largely aims to trace his involvement with this movement by paying special attention to his interactions with Shrila Prabhupada. It will also briefly refer to the influence of this exchange on his poetry of that period and go on to conclude by how it brought about a transnational cross-cultural synthesis between the East and the West.
Angel-headed hipsters: The post-world war American ethos
The American 1960s, as Camille Anna Paglia has recorded in her essay “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s”, saw the rise of various Asian cults and philosophies in the United States. Organized movements that openly propagated religiosity drew thousands of hippies across the country in its endeavor. The spread of Hinduism had already taken place in the States; back in 1893, Swami Vivekananda had delivered his seminal speech in the Parliament of Religions and founded the American Vedanta Society in New York City, from which numerous branches opened around the country. But until after World War II, as Paglia has observed, ‘American interest in Hinduism was mainly confined to urban centers and was connected in the popular mind with kooks, charlatans and Hollywood actors.’ In the 1940s, Swami Prabhavananda’s involvement drew personalities like Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. During the 1950s, several cults saw simultaneous development- America was visited by religious thinkers like Paramhansa Yogananda, “Avatar” Meher Baba and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They became an instant hit with the country’s younger generation. Entrapped for long in a claustrophobic, corporate, drug-abusing urban society, the American youth, in their search for salvation, turned to Asian philosophies. Perhaps the most successful and widespread upheaval among these cults in the 1960s, was the Hare Krishna Movement. To lead the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Swami Prabhupada had arrived In New York in 1965 and begun preaching with his followers. Having shaved their heads and garbed in saffron robes, they chanted the ‘Maha Mantra’ with rattles and tambourines in street corners and distributed their pamphlets to passers-by. They instilled in their disciples the renunciation of meat, drugs, alcohol, gambling and extra-marital sex. The ISKCON soon had 108 centers worldwide and claimed a significant part of the intelligentsia as its members. Allen Ginsberg’s interaction with Shrila Prabhupada began around this time and continued for quite a long time before he shifted his interest to Buddhism and Zen philosophy.
Ginsberg and the ‘New Vrindaban’: Conversations
Allen Ginsberg’s active engagement with the Hare Krishna movement along with his extensive interaction with Shrila Prabhupada find first-hand documentation in Hayagriva Das’s (Howard Wheeler) The Hare Krishna Explosion: The Birth of Krishna Consciousness in America 1966-69 and Satsvarupa Goswami’s Srila Prabhupada-Lilamrta. Ginsberg met Prabhupada for the first time in 1966 at Second Avenue’s storefront in New York’s Lower East Side, accompanied by Peter Orlovsky. They donated a small harmonium to ISKCON for their kirtanas. Ginsberg’s journal records his first acquaintance as-
Bhaktivedanta seemed to have no friends in America but was alone, totally alone, and gone somewhat like a lone hippie to the nearest refuge, the place where it was cheap enough to rent.
There were a few people sitting cross-legged on the floor. I think most of them were Lower East Side hippies who had just wandered in off the street, with beards and a curiosity and inquisitiveness and a respect for spiritual presentation of some kind. Some of them were sitting there with glazed eyes, but most of them were just like gentle folk—bearded, hip, and curious. They were refugees from the middle class in the Lower East Side, looking exactly like the street sadhus in India. It was very similar, that phase in American underground history. And I liked immediately the idea that Swami Bhaktivedanta had chosen the Lower East Side of New York for his practice. He’d gone to the lower depths. He’d gone to a spot more like the side streets of Calcutta than any other place.
Ginsberg promised to assist Bhaktivedanta in extending his visa and offered to sponsor his immigration lawyer. The next morning, he donated another harmonium and brought a cheque of $200 to cover expenses. Prabhupada enlightened Ginsberg about the teachings of Chaitanya and interpreted various sequences of the Gita to him. As Goswami’s Lilamrta narrates, both Ginsberg and Prabhupada had their differences.
When Allen expressed his admiration for a well-known Bengali holy man, Prabhupada said that the holy man was bogus. Allen was shocked. He’d never before heard a swami severely criticize another’s practice. Prabhupada explained, on the basis of Vedic evidence, the reasoning behind his criticism, and Allen admitted that he had naively thought that all holy men were 100 percent holy. But now he decided that he should not simply accept a sadhu, including Prabhupada, on blind faith. He decided to see Prabhupada in a more severe, critical light.
Their association culminated in the Mantra Rock Dance of 1967 and went on till their 1969 onstage chant at the Ohio State University of Columbus. The full conversations between them have been posted at the end of this paper.
When Ginsberg described his divine vision of Blake’s voice, a sadhu in Vrindavana had told Allen that this meant that William Blake was his guru. But to Prabhupada, it made no sense. They continued to debate about the necessity of drugs in everyday life. Prabhupada’s teachings about simplicity and overcoming mortal temptations were contrary to Allen’s life of unbarred addiction. Ginsberg thus records in his journal:
The main thing, above and beyond all our differences, was an aroma of sweetness that he had, a personal, selfless sweetness like total devotion. And that was what always conquered me, whatever intellectual questions or doubts I had, or even cynical views of ego. In his presence there was a kind of personal charm, coming from dedication, that conquered all our conflicts. Even though I didn’t agree with him, I always liked to be with him.
Back to Godhead: Mantra Rock Dance
One of the major events that rocked the 1960s and established a countercultural connection between Gaudiya Vaishnavism and American music was the Mantra Rock Dance. It was a musical organized by the followers of ISKCON. Held on 29th January 1967 at the Avalon Ballroom of San Francisco, the program aimed to provide Shrila Prabhupada an opportunity to address a wider American audience. With the active assistance of several notable cultural personalities, it was meant to promote Vaishnavism, as well as collect funds for the ISKCON. Various bands like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother with the Holding Company, Janis Joplin or Moby Grape decided to perform for free. Despite the fact that a section of the followers disapproved of the program because of its loud music and amplified guitars, Prabhupada agreed to come down to San Francisco and attend it.
Allen Ginsberg, by then a supporter of Prabhupada, provided major assistance in this initiative. Along with other countercultural ideologues like Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, and Alan Watts, Ginsberg hoped to incorporate Prabhupada and the chanting of Hare Krishna into the American vein and agreed to take part in the Mantra-Rock Dance concert and to introduce the swami to the Haight-Ashbury hippie community. On January 16, 1967, eleven days before the event, Ginsberg himself arrived at the San Francisco airport to receive Prabhupada.
An audience of about 3,000 people attended the concert, filling the hall to more than its capacity. The proceedings are recorded as follows-
Ginsberg welcomed Prabhupada onto the stage and spoke of his own experiences chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. He translated the meaning of the Sanskrit term mantra as ‘mind deliverance’ and recommended the early-morning kirtans at the local Radha-Krishna temple ‘for those coming down from LSD who want to stabilize their consciousness upon reentry,’ calling the temple’s activity an ‘important community service.’ He introduced Prabhupada and thanked him for leaving his peaceful life in India to bring the mantra to New York’s Lower East Side, ‘where it was probably most needed.’
After a short address by Prabhupada, Ginsberg sang ‘Hare Krishna’ to the accompaniment of sitar, tambura, and drums, requesting the audience to ‘just sink into the sound vibration, and think of peace.’ Then Prabhupada stood up and led the audience in dancing and singing, as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Moby Grape joined the chanting and accompanied the mantra with their musical instruments. The audience eagerly responded, playing their own instruments and began dancing in circles. The group chanting continued for almost two hours, and concluded with the swami’s prayers in Sanskrit while the audience bowed down on the floor. After Prabhupada left, Janis Joplin took the stage, backed by Big Brother and the Holding Company, and continued the event with the songs ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’ late into the night.
The Mantra Rock Dance was an important step to strengthen the transnational exchange between the East and the West. It evolved as a perfect example of how a synthesis between the cultural configuration of the American 60s and the ideals of Gaudiya Vaishnavism could work out. Various critics, calling it ‘the ultimate high’ considered it to be ‘the major spiritual event of the San Francisco Hippie era.’ The popularity of this event can be guessed by the splendour of its 40th anniversary commemoration held in California in 2007.
Hare Krishna in 1967
The Chant, Documented
In 1966, Jonas Mekas’s four minute documentary, in which Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky chanted the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra in the background, came out. It was a quick montage of several images that tried to depict the ethos of New York in the 60s. Mekas’s own note from the catalogue of The Filmmaker’s Cooperative reads:
A ‘documentary’ – one Sunday afternoon in New York – beautiful new generation – dancing in the streets of New York – singing ‘Hare Hare’ – filling the streets and the air with love – in the very beginning of the New Age – Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (on soundtrack) singing ‘Hare Hare.’
Mekas incorporated this brief footage into his diary film Walden that came out three years later. Apart from singing it regularly in TV interviews and public readings, Allen also used the chant in The Fugs’ 1968 album, Tenderness Junction. Mekas’ documentary is shown in full below.
‘Heart is your Guru’: Vaishnavite Reflections in Ginsberg’s poetry
Throughout his literary career Allen Ginsberg had always been influenced by Asian religions. Although his earlier works like ‘Howl’ (1956) or ‘Empty Mirror’ do not directly express this trend, they still show a salient quest towards spirituality. After returning from his tour across Asia, his subsequent editions clearly demonstrate how Buddhism and Vaishnavism had illuminated his literature.
Written on 18th July 1963, ‘The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express’ asserts how a mystical spiritual epiphany turned out to be a life-changing experience for him. Swami Sivananda, of the Divine life society of Rishikesh, told him, your ‘heart is your guru.’ This message finds poetic treatment in a poem called ‘Guru’ included in King of May: America to Europe. There are several other poems written after 1962 which particularly deal with Ginsberg’s tryst with Vaishnavism. Some prominent examples may include, ‘This Form of Life Needs Sex’, ‘Shastras to Kali- Destroyer of Illusions’, ‘Why is God Love Jack?’, ‘Angkor Wat’, ‘Elegy for Neil Cassady’ and ‘Guru Om’. Interestingly, when he mentions the name of his Gurus in one of his final poems ‘Death and Fame’, he doesn’t include Prabhupada. It may be assumed that Ginsberg got involved in the Hare Krishna movement out of an immediate need for spiritual counseling but moved away from it after meeting Chogyam Trungpa. But this involvement left its foot mark.
Carl Jackson in his essay, “The Counterculture Looks East: Beat Writers and Asian Religion” writes, ‘If haiku and Zen Buddhism were early literary influences, his later writing reveals the impact of Hindu mantra-chanting.’ Jackson observes that one of the integral characteristics of Beat poetry includes an emphasis on oral delivery. A growing emphasis on the importance of breathing also reflected this influence.
Ginsberg’s commitment to Indian philosophy revolutionized his perception of poetry. Jackson further notes that, in 1971 Ginsberg spoke about the function of poetry as ‘a catalyst to visionary states of being’ and writing to him was a form of meditation or ‘introspective yoga.’
Rare color film of Allen Ginsberg with Prabhupada
On being asked why he stopped chanting the Mantra in public readings, Ginsberg talks about how he ran into Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Lama who founded the Naropa. While he was showing Ginsberg how he sang, the Lama told him, ‘Remember the silence is as important as the sound.’ He substantiated it by saying that singing all the mantras in public ‘would raise some kind of expectation or neurological buzz in the audience’ and went on to suggest Ginsberg to sing ‘something which didn’t require a structured sadhana or practice to have effect and would not confuse people.’
Carl Jackson mentions that Ginsberg found his true guru in this Chogyam Trungpa. Under his guidance he took up advanced meditation with rigorous ten-hour-per-day retreats in 1973. As poet and professor, Subodh Sarkar, records his experiences about Ginsberg in his travelogue Deshta America, he spent his last few years lecturing at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics while helping his biographers in assimilating fragmented recollections of his life. In almost all interviews, he has talked about the unparalleled influence of Asian religion in his life and works.
Randolph Bourne has described Transnationalism as ‘a new way of thinking about relationships between cultures.’ In the light of this statement, Ginsberg’s life and works during the Hare Krishna phase brings about an amalgamation of American life and Asian philosophy transcending national borders to expose a two-way relationship between the modern and the primitive. At a period when Americans searched for spiritual solace and Indian philosophy wanted to spread itself in the west, Ginsberg’s involvement with the Hare Krishna movement can be studied as a perfect example of this striving to fuse. In an interview given to the Writer’s Digest, Ginsberg’s advice about self-expression is, ‘Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.’ Ginsberg’s madness found moonlight in Vaishnavism- although it waned, its beams remained to enlighten him thereafter.
Conversation between Srila Prabhupada and the poet Allen Ginsberg. May 11, 1969. Colombus, Ohio.
An exchange between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and the poet Allen Ginsberg. May 12, 1969. Columbus, Ohio.
“A. Ginsberg — Walk Through Kali Yuga.” May 13, 1969.
Room Conversation with Allen Ginsberg. May 14, 1969. Columbus, Ohio.
Sources and other Links
Extract from Part III: New Vrindaban, 1968-1969, http://www.hansadutta.com/EXPLOSION/hkex17.html
The Hare Krishna Movement, http://theharekrishnamovement.wordpress.com/tag/allen-ginsberg/
Interview with Suranjan Ganguly, http://www.synergiescanada.org/journals/synpra/ariel/187/2688
Carl Jackson’s Essay, https://journals.ku.edu/index.php/amerstud/article/view/2501